Reportage

Down-at-heel among the well-heeled

THE SOUTHERN HIGHLANDS of New South Wales is a rural region with a reputation for city-style affluence. Most visitors, and a significant number of its residents, see it as the happy hunting ground of the very rich and the ordinarily rich. It's up there with Sydney's Double Bay, Melbourne's South Yarra and Brisbane's Ascot in the status and desirability stakes.

This view has a historical basis. Since 1867, when the railway reached the district, it has been not only a cool-climate tourist destination but also a popular bolthole for those able to afford large country homes and estates among the rolling green hills.

Today, the trappings of affluence are as conspicuous as ever: the multimillion-dollar mansions, the Mercs, the spotless SUVs, the plethora of restaurants, cafes and boutiques, even an offshoot of Jones the Grocer. And while the image all this creates of a wealthy enclave may be unintended, there's no doubt it helps fuel tourism as well as economic and population growth in the district.

But beneath the glitz lies an unacknowledged reality, and you don't have to dig far to find it. Tucked away out of sight in the three main towns – Bowral, Mittagong, Moss Vale – and some of the outlying villages are areas of housing that resemble down-at-heel big-city suburbs. Here live people who have been stricken by a whole Pandora's box of misfortunes, from illness to domestic violence, that have forced them into hardship. More difficult to spot, but prevalent nonetheless, are what might be termed the genteel poor, people who have known better times but who now suffer unseen behind closed doors. And, like any inner-city zone, the district has its share of vagrants and substance-abusers.

In 2006, geographer Ian Bowie lifted the lid, if only a little, on poverty in the district. In his book,Wingecarribee Our Home (U3A Southern Highlands/Wingecarribee Shire Council, 2006) he uses statistics from numerous sources, including the 2001 census, to paint a portrait of the Southern Highlands that demolishes long-held myths.

Some figures stand out. One is that a third of households reported incomes below the Henderson Poverty Line for the average family. Others are that more than 40 per cent of individual incomes were below the poverty line for a single adult and three-quarters were below the median average weekly ordinary full-time earnings level, which in 2001 was $700.

Bowie warned that these were slippery figures, but behind the statistical fog lie a few solid rocks: "Thirty per cent of standard households under the poverty line suggests there's got to be very real poverty here."

Another revelation (although again the figures are slippery) was that there were very few people who could be termed truly rich. At the time of the 2001 census, there may have been as few as 1,250 people with incomes of more than twice the median average.

"So the perception of this part of the world being rich, affluent, is simply not right," Bowie said.

I set out to find the faces behind the poverty that the statistics alluded to. First I talked with people (individuals as well as the representatives of organisations) dealing with poverty and the poor. They quickly confirmed the message of Bowie's stats – that there were indeed many financially stressed people living amid the affluence. Family counsellor Francine Bartlett added a relevant twist: "Research shows that it's the relative gap between rich and poor that is more destructive than the actual degree of poverty ... People who are poor here actually feel it more acutely because there is relative wealth around them."

Anne-Marie Kennedy, project manager for Interchange Wingecarribee Inc., a non-profit community-based organisation, created a striking picture: "One of my first client visits was to a very elderly woman who had an outside toilet and no sewerage. She just used to dig her waste into the ground. That, juxtaposed with the images of the region of great estates, people playing polo and cashmere jumpers, was bizarre."

Early in my investigations, I hesitated to use the words "poor" and "poverty" for fear that such blunt instruments might hurt or offend. It was easier to crouch behind anodyne and thoroughly correct terms like "strugglers", "battlers", "people doing it tough" and "financially challenged".

But one of the battlers set me right. I'd circulated a carefully worded letter among the clients of one organisation calling for volunteer interviewees. A woman phoned me.

"I hear you're looking for poor people to interview," she said.

I baulked at her directness. "Ah, um, yes, I am indeed after people experiencing financial distress," I said.

"Well, I'm poor. You can interview me."

So I did. Her story and those of a number of other people follow. Just as much as they illustrate the theme of this article, they reveal how unique, rich and astonishing are the lives of all individuals. Even the poor.

The names of interviewees, and the names of the people they mentioned during interview, have been changed.

JAKE, 15: I dropped out of school when I was thirteen after I got arrested for assault with a deadly weapon on my mum. I had ADHD [attention deficit hyperactivity disorder] and bipolar [disorder] and now apparently I'm paranoid-schizophrenic too.

It was my third time getting arrested, but I got let off. The times before it was for the same thing. I dunno why I did it. Just one day she had a go at me and I snapped.

I didn't like school at all. Everyone used to pick on me, maybe because I looked weird and had weird hairstyles and stuff. I've always been different, and I like it like that.

I was living in Wollongong then, with my mum and my sisters. My dad had left and was up here. I have four sisters, no brothers. My father had me and my older sister; two of my other sisters were by a different dad and the third one was a by different dad again.

I got into drugs when I was ten. My first smoke was when I was ten and my first cone was when I was ten. Same day. I've tried a knock-off version of acid; I've had ice, speed, heroin (only a little bit – when I bought pot laced with heroin), and a couple of home-made things and mushrooms. I like pot, but the rest, well ...

After I got arrested and let off, I came up here to live with my dad on a farm. He used to be a biker and was a maintenance fitter, a mechanic, and used to fix machines for big companies and do up old cars and sell 'em. He stopped work six or seven years ago when he had his first heart attack. After that he got really sick and fat and had more heart attacks and was on a pension.

Up here it was just me and him in an old run-down cottage with rats the size of cats. There was another house on the property, which belonged to the owner, my dad's friend who was eighty-six, and there was a farmhand. That's all the people there was on the property. And it was about a thousand acres.

On the property I helped my dad out. I grew a real massive garden with all different herbs like oregano, and vegetables. That's all I did most of the day, or I just watched TV. Well, as much as I could on the black-and-white TV attached to a battery. We had no power, see, and no hot water in the cottage. For showers we had solar hot water bags we put in the sun on top of the bathroom.

There was power in the shed, which was a kilometre down a driveway. We were allowed to put a fridge and microwave there. We had a gas stove and me and my dad took turns cooking. Spaghetti Bolognaise, or those Coles heat-'n'-eat lasagnes, or big stir-fries, with chicken, vegetables and rice and stuff. We cooked mad things. I used to cook my own omelettes, two-egg omelettes that were that fat ...

After I moved in with my dad I had no friends at all, no one to talk to except my dad and his friends. It was okay with my dad except when he started hitting me. He did that because I used to be uncontrollable and he couldn't control me so he just hit me and just kept on hitting me and then finding excuses to hit me. He was all right other times. He used to grow pot and smoked it but wouldn't let me.

I got bashed by my dad for about two and a half years. Sometimes I used to run off when he tried to hit me and disappear for like two or three hours and then come back. One day he was bashing me and yelling at me and I just went, "The hell with this" and I started walking and never went back.

I went to the cops and they took me to a refuge and I stayed there about three months. They charged my dad and he was brought to court. I never found out what happened about it. I used to see him sometimes after that. He used to sit out the front of Coles nearly all day. He died two months ago of a heart attack at the age of forty-six and I ended up with his bong, but I got rid of it.

I got kicked out of the refuge three times, got suspended. The last time was for attacking one of the staff while I was speeding off my head. I got very violent, threw a chair.

I left, stayed in a friend's house for one night, lived at another friend's for two weeks and then I was in Goulburn for four months. I got a job working trolleys, but I got sacked for swearing. I had a couple of other jobs and I was getting my life right and then a couple of kids across the road, all pot-smokers, got me in trouble and I got arrested for shoplifting, which I didn't do – I did it for someone else.

Then I came back up here. Been living here about a month now. I've been happy ever since. I live at a house with a couple of friends. I just pay $50 a week rent and buy a bit of food and my own smokes. The money comes from Centrelink, $170 a week, and I take the rent out of that. And I'm looking for a job.

Haven't been getting myself in too much trouble. Well, a little bit but not much. Like buying pot off a dealer. Also I was doing favours for people, running drugs to other people and selling them. I was getting free pot for that.

I don't really know where I go from here. Probably end up dead soon or ... I dunno. I'll try and get a job doing fireworks, letting off fireworks for people or blowing stuff up for the army. Sounds like fun.

My other job was going to be drug dealing but I got out of that one 'cos I've done it before. When I was thirteen I used to grow pot and sell it. If you can grow tomatoes you can grow pot. It's that easy. Just plant the seed, get the right fertiliser, the right light, or outside, though I grew it better as a hydro set-up.

I used to draw. I keep all the pictures. But I can draw excellent like. I make weird characters, like weird devils and goats and different creatures and evil symbols like upside-down crosses. I drew a grim reaper on a motorbike once. I actually sold one of me pictures to someone for $300. It was just a pencil drawing.

There's tons of kids living like me. Most ain't as young as me. I stopped hanging around with younger kids 'cos I know a bit more about drugs and shit than them. So I hang around with older people that just relax and smoke cones all day.

You're better off not even starting into drugs. Try it, and if you like it, keep going with it, but don't get yourself in trouble with it. You always have to be in control of the drugs; the drugs can't be in control of you. I used to think that it was in control of me. I'd rather have just a little bit occasionally, otherwise I'm too hyperactive. That's why I started smoking in the first place.

 

VERA, 72: I was born and grew up in Sydney. During the war my parents sent me to Frensham [an exclusive girls' boarding school in Mittagong] because they thought Sydney might get bombed. After school I wanted to travel, so I went to England, lived in London, worked like hell and saved money for wonderful weekends in Paris or Spain or somewhere.

Then I was in Africa on and off for about eleven years. I was a bit of a travel writer, got a few stories in South African Tatler and a magazine called Travel and Trade. I covered Botswana's independence, was there on and off for about five months before independence and went back afterwards to see how things were going.

After I came home to Sydney, I bought a lovely unit in Mosman and in 1988 I had a mortgage and got on with living and enjoying my life. But then I developed empyema, an illness that nearly killed me. I took about a year to recover, during which time I couldn't pay my mortgage because I'd lost my job. I temped for a while but I could see I wasn't making it and my mortgage payments were going backwards.

I sold the unit and bought a little house in Launceston, Tasmania, and was there for four years. But Bass Strait really cut me off from things, so eventually I sold and came back to Sydney. I was back to renting again but I had no job and was living on my capital. It was then that I put my name down with the Department of Housing. At the same time I decided to get out of Sydney and started looking around.

About seven years ago I came to stay with a friend in Bowral. He took me around to the agents and that's how I found a place in this part of the world. I got little jobs here and there, knitting and sewing and walking dogs and babysitting for a spare dollar. Everything was fine until I broke my leg. It happened in Sydney where I'd gone with a group of friends for lunch. I hadn't drunk much but just tripped on a small step. If the break had been a little higher I would have needed a hip replacement, but it was lower, so I've got a pin down there.

After that I really couldn't cope financially very well at all, so when the Department of Housing contacted me a year ago to say they'd found me a cottage, I jumped at it and moved in, and now I'm as happy as a sand boy.

Financially I'm coping – just. My rent is deducted from my pension, my water rates too, and then I have to pay electricity and gas on top of that. I have difficulty with those, particularly in winter, and I have had to turn to the Salvation Army and St Vincent de Paul. They've been extremely helpful and I'm terribly obliged to them, so I try to buy from their shops and donate things as well.

Material things don't bother me. I just want a bed, a chair, a cup, a saucer, a handful of friends, some good wine and a good book. I want to enjoy this lovely part of the world, our safety from unhappiness and the upheavals of war-torn countries. To me that's what life's about.

I'm not terribly well at the moment. Last year I suddenly lost a lot of weight, and I went in and had day surgery and they found a lot of polyps, two cancerous. I am on the waiting list to go back to hospital to see if there are any more.

I can say it makes me slightly embarrassed to be poor. In the seven years I've been here I've got to know a lot of people. I think some of them know I live in Housing, but not many. They're a wonderful group, and I get invited out a lot, but I can't always repay that hospitality, because on $350 a fortnight you can't exactly spread it around like horse manure. I just have to make excuses. I'll go and pull weeds, dig a hole in the garden, plant a plant, because that is my way of overcoming that. In winter I probably cook more and may have three or four people around for dinner with lots of grog and a laugh and it's fine.

I don't resent it at all that people have more money than I do. Because they've put so much effort into making that money, I think they deserve every penny of it. I've just been too lazy, spending so much on enjoying my life and travelling that I haven't put anything away for a rainy day. I do regret that, but I don't regret my good life.

I talk with my neighbours over the fence. I babysit sometimes, or in exchange for fresh vegetables from their garden or eggs from their chooks I do a bit of sewing. That's a nice way to be, a nice way to live.

 

GREGOR, 82: When I came to Australia in 1949, I was very proud to say I was Australian. I shouted it: "I'm Australian!" But now I look around and I just whisper it because in my lifetime the change I have seen here is absolutely unbelievable.

When I came, there were ten thousand rich and ten thousand poor and the rest were middle class. Now you have dirty rich and dirty poor and nobody in between. The middle class has died out.

I was in the motor trade. When I arrived, I wanted to start my own business. I went to the bank to borrow money to buy a wrecked car which I was going to fix up and sell, right? I borrowed £150 and when the car was finished I got £500 for it. So I had a chance as a newcomer to borrow money.

We've got five children, one son and four daughters. Our son wanted to start a business. He went to the bank, got a loan and I acted as guarantor.

I had my own service station and a beautiful house, absolute waterfront [on the NSW South Coast]. We were planning a big party on New Year's Eve 1980 but I ruined it by having a heart attack that morning. I went back to work for another two years, but the heart started to play up and in 1983 I went on the pension.

After I retired, my wife was a passenger in a car that crashed and she had a very bad chest injury. One lung was pierced and her sternum was smashed. At the same time we found out that our son had gone broke and the money he borrowed was lost. As guarantor, I had to pay it off and we had to sell the house. It nearly broke my heart.

But we still had enough money to buy a block of land up here. The breeze [on the coast] was salty and my wife's lung didn't heal. The doctor recommended we move to somewhere high for fresh, clean air.

So we came up here in 1986. We didn't know at the time, but one daughter was hooked on the pokies. Her wages just went into the pokies, and next thing she and her husband lost their house. Because now we had a half-acre block up here where we were going to build a two-bedroom place for us for our old age, the daughter said to the mother, "Why don't you build a big house and we can move in there with you?"

We worked out how much we occupied of that house, and the daughter and our son-in-law borrowed money from the bank to buy their share. With the property in our name, we were responsible for it.

But we found out too late that the daughter had been hooked so badly and got so deep into debt that she and her husband couldn't pay their share of our mortgage. So we had to sell the house. We got $110,000 for it, and after paying the bank we had nothing left.

We rented a two-storey townhouse in Mittagong in 1989. By then my wife had had two heart attacks and a kidney stone and while we were in the town house she had a stroke. So we had to move again. My wife suggested we apply to the Housing Commission. We did and we got this place as soon as it was finished, which was very nice. We've been here six and a half years.

We are both on pensions. We used to be able to afford to go out to dinner at the club two or three times a week. Then it went down to two times, then one time. Now we can't afford any times.

My health is not good. I have this bad circulation problem. I have an eye problem too. I have only one eye. The other is artificial – I lost it in an industrial accident. Well, then I started seeing foggy in the good eye.

The hardest part of being sick is paying for all the tests. When I went to an eye specialist, he said: "Public or private?"

I said: "Public."

He said: "See you in twelve months."

So twelve months later I went back. By then I couldn't cross the road because I only saw the cars when they almost hit me. He did tests, and I paid and paid, and they found out what we already knew: it was a cataract.

Then the specialist said he wouldn't operate on a person with one eye. "When you can't see, come back and see me."

I said: "Doctor, if I can't see, how can I come and see you?" [Chuckles]

He said: "Sorry, an operation is not recommended."

So I went to my doctor in Moss Vale, and he said he knew a specialist in Goulburn who was like Fred Hollows, you know. I went to see him, he did the operation, put a lens in, finish! When they took the bandage off they put a patch over the eye and told me to go. I said: "Go where? I can't see anything. Other eye is artificial!" [Chuckles heartily]

Now the wife, she's eighty-three, and she can't walk, she puffs a lot. When you're getting old and get all this sickness, today everywhere you pay. Where do you get the money from?

As pensioners, we haven't got the power to change things. What could we do? Who listens to pensioners? Nobody. Nobody cares about lower class people. When people learn we are living in the Southern Highlands, they say we're lucky, we are rich. We're rich all right – rich in debt.

 

MICHAEL, 28: I went into the relationship feet first. Should have thought about it a bit more. I met her through the internet. We chatted over the net for a few weeks and then I met her in person. After that she came and stayed with me for six months. During that time she fell pregnant, and when she was four months pregnant I left my job here in the Highlands and went back to her home town with her to become a father.

She already had a two-year-old daughter from a previous man. She told me she'd finished with him and all this kind of jazz before I came into the picture. So she got her daughter to call me "Dad".

My girlfriend had our daughter, Milly, in 2004. I used to look after her, change her nappies and do the housework. I got a job at the local hospital looking after aged residents. I got a second job in a hostel looking after ten residents, giving out medications and feeding.

A year ago my girlfriend told me to go. Like she put it straight to my face: "Get out!" That kind of thing. It hit me for six because I didn't see it coming. I was suicidal; I rang Mum and Dad and said goodbye and then cut my wrists. About five minutes later the police and ambulance turned up and took me to the hospital, and then Mum and Dad came and got me and took me back down here. After I moved back here, my girlfriend got a new man who's fourteen years older than her.

I was born in the Highlands and I grew up in the house where my parents have lived for thirty-odd years. At school, I struggled with pretty much everything, though I enjoyed rugby union, where I was hooker and prop. I left school at seventeen, did a basic personal carer course in Sydney and then worked in nursing homes. You do the showers and the feeding and make the beds and that kind of stuff, general care.

So I was in Sydney for a couple of years and then I moved back home with Mum and Dad and got a job here, same kind of work, and I was here for two or three years until I moved up to my ex-girlfriend's place.

I didn't see little Milly for three months after we broke up. I had to go through court and all that kind of nonsense to see her. I've been seeing her for eleven months. She comes here and I take her to playgroup. That's very rewarding. She's got little friends to play with and I see other mothers to talk to and I have friends there.

Milly's two and a half now. I've got a very close relationship with her. She clings to me, and on handover she cries because she doesn't want to go back to her mother. I have her for five days a fortnight. I pick her up on the Wednesday and take her back on the following Monday. Well, it's dad that does the driving because I don't drive. And she's really only three days here because there's two days of travel. I'm not working but I've applied for a job working every other week so I can be free for when she's here.

I've found a house through a charity and I'm going to move out of my parents' house and live there on my own. It's a semi with two bedrooms, close to shops and general area. I'm on Centrelink benefits and they'll take the rent out of that.

When Milly's old enough to understand, I'd like her to come down and live with me and be happy. That's all I can hope for. My lawyer told me that because she's got a sister they try to keep the siblings together. I don't know how I'll get over that, but I'll just have to.

I don't go out to clubs or pubs by myself. I just find it a bit more relaxing at home. I chat to people on the computer. That's the only hobby or interest I have, apart from when I've got Milly.

If I had more money I'd be able to spend a bit more on her. When she's here I try to give her treats. I get her ice-cream, go to the park or the lake, or Mum and Dad take us down to Shellharbour to the beach. I try to do something different with her every day. She loves the water.

HELEN, 56: This is crisis housing and, as you can see, it's perfectly adequate. I'm not a refugee in Chad or anything. It's part community housing and part charity housing, and I've ended up here on an extremely low income inasmuch as I'm on a disability support pension.

My background is as a successful singer-performer. I moved up to the Southern Highlands from Sydney in 1989. Circumstances had conspired against me: I'd reached the age where the phone stops ringing for female performers. The wonder that was the Australian arts in the 1970s and early to mid-1980s was, thanks to successive governments, pretty well destroyed.

I didn't have the money to buy property. I found a dear little farmhouse to rent on a property about fifteen to twenty minutes out of Bowral, in a beautiful valley, owned by good old-time farmers. I was still doing some performing around the place but then I developed Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and my stamina went right down.

Then I got lung cancer and had a lung removed and ended up with what they call pain syndrome, which is body pain, most acutely in legs, feet and arms. I had really nothing to fall back on, no family. I'd been married for six years, but he decided when I got the cancer that it was time to leave. So it was all a little bit grim.

I'm in remission, as the expression goes, and they say if you haven't died within the first five years, your chances of surviving are pretty good. So with me it's living with disabling pain, which isn't constant but it's extreme when it's happening.

These weren't my only problems, however. Last year I had major accommodation problems too. To cut a long story short, the farm and my little farmhouse got sold to a rich Sydney couple who'd already bought a neighbouring property and I was given my marching orders.

So I've ended up in "the system" at probably the worst time in the history of our country's social welfare. I'm paying $80 a week in rent here but I'm also paying $60 a week to keep my belongings in storage. The rent is deducted from my income. I don't pay electricity, and the phone is a ring-in only; I can't ring out on it, but fortunately friends got me a mobile and I just get a pre-paid [card].

Having come from a background in the arts, where if you're in work you have fun, if you're out of work you don't, I guess poverty has been a serial event in my life. It's a bit like taking vows as a Franciscan monk: you dedicate yourself to your art and accept you'll be poor.

I have a good medical support team here and that's pretty damned important. Most doctors up here don't bulk bill. I'm fortunate to have a doctor who has seen me through near-death and who is wonderful, incredible and who bulk bills me. God forbid that anything should go wrong with my teeth because there would be a six-month waiting list with an impacted tooth or something. I believe all this is so unnecessary. I mean, how many million dollars a week are we spending on troops in Iraq?

I think it's the insecurity that gets to me, the spectre of ageing without any likely alleviation of that insecurity. Unfortunately, government assistance is getting sparser. Before July, if you were in government housing, you were secure for life. But Howard has now brought in a system where people in government housing get two-year or five-year leases, or ten-year leases if they're over sixty-five, after which time they automatically get an eviction notice and the onus is on them to show why they shouldn't be evicted. So people are going to be living in terror. At seventy-five are they going to be asked: "Have you trained as a brain surgeon? Are you self-supporting?" It's a thoughtless and very cruel system.

I write and I paint. What you see on the walls are just prints of some of my paintings. I've written and painted a kids' book, and feedback is that my text is far too dense and static. So I haven't been able to get an agent or a publisher for it and I'm wanting to hand it to a writer to put a bit of oomph in it.

I have three bedrooms but as I'm alone I'm only allowed to use one. The others are closed. How weird is it that at fifty-six you are not allowed male visitors, alcohol on the premises or to smoke. There are visits every fortnight when they come to see if you've pawned the television. It's a bit Gestapo-like and invasive.

Paying bills is terrifying. If it weren't for friends ... I mean thank goodness for the fraternity in the performing arts. I am fortunate to get a little help with that sort of thing.

Bowral is now full of the sort of people that I left Sydney because of, the vicious, greedy CEOs of this nation, the so-called first-world greed mongrels.

I feel gratefully different from them. Do I feel like a sub-species? No, I don't because I know I'm not one. It is only when I am actually dealing with people who work within the welfare system that I feel outraged. There are only a few within the system that I've dealt with who have superior intellects. Perspicacity is not high on the list of requirements to work in community housing, government housing or charity welfare organisations. One has to pay more for that. And as the government withdraws more and more money, less and less appropriate people are working in the system.

This is a beautiful area where the Baby Boomers who've done good want to end up. It seems to me that they're changing other people's lives dramatically for the worse as they move in. They want to turn thousands of acres of the best growing land in New South Wales into pleasure parks and little Xanadus. It is a mindless takeover of good farming country which is going to disadvantage them or their offspring in generations to come. But the first to go, the first to be massively disadvantaged, are people like myself, and we are feeling it and seeing it directly.

 

RITA, 50: I've had custody of my eight-year-old grandson since he was six months old and I've been fighting the government ever since to get payments to help me to bring him up. He's the son of my eldest daughter. She was fifteen and heavily into drugs when she had him and she tried to look after him as best she could but she got herself into a hell of a situation.

I believe my role is to try and keep the family together as best I can, not just for my grandson's sake but for her sake as well. I love her very dearly and I will bend over backwards to try to make sure she's okay.

I come from a violent background, from my parents to my ex-husband, whom I left in 1992. I had a Department of Housing house in Sydney, and three years ago I did a swap with someone for this one. I'd always wanted to live in this area. I felt like I belonged here, for some reason.

My grandson has Asperger's syndrome, which is high-functioning autism. Asperger's kids are very obsessive, very active – and very tiring because it's a twenty-four-hour-a-day job looking after them. If he wakes at one o'clock in the morning, he won't go back to sleep. This morning it was half-past four. You think: "Oh, just give me some peace, please!"

But I take it all for granted because I've been doing it for so long.

School was a challenge. The first year I had to sit in the classroom with him the whole time. He doesn't go to the local school. It had a class for children like him or children with ADD [attention deficit disorder], ADHD, this that and the other, and I thought he had enough problems without having to cope with all those other kids as well. So he goes to one of the village schools and I have to drive him there every day.

He's doing really well. I'm so proud of him. He got an end-of-term award last term. The school is very proud of him too, because when he first started they said he would probably never learn to read or write. Well, he's reading now. He had his IQ and everything tested when he was seven, and he had a reading age of eleven years and nine months, with comprehension too.

As a grandmother raising a grandchild, you don't fit in with younger parents, because they all talk such nonsense – they go on about make-up and perfumes and shoes and dresses and everything. But then you can't mix with grandparents either, because they don't have little babies tagging along with them.

I do go without a few things, but my main priority is him. A couple of months ago we didn't have enough food in the house, but I made sure he had a nice hot meal every day. I told myself I could do without food until the next day, and I'd just have a cup of tea or whatever. I buy him new clothes but I can't afford new clothes for myself. I don't go to the hairdresser either; I cut my hair myself.

I had cancer and about three weeks before I got him I had a total hysterectomy and ovariectomy and lost a part of my bowel. So we've been through all that together. I'm in remission at the moment but I still have to go for a check-up every three months.

Up to now I've been getting the sole parent pension but now I've been classified as a foster parent, so from this week I'll be getting a payment from DoCS as well. It's taken me eight years to get that. I asked if they could backdate it but they said no!

There's also another advantage now because if anything happens to his health all his medical expenses will be paid for by DoCS. When I first got him, all his internal organs had shut down and he needed an emergency operation and I had to pay for it. You should have seen him. He hadn't been breast-fed; he'd just been getting cow's milk and water. He was skinny, malnourished and had never been fed formula.

I had to give up work when he came to live with me. I did try at first to work but the babysitters I got for him didn't know how to cope with him so it was impossible to work.

My father was Polish, my mother Irish, a very beautiful mixture. About four years ago I found out that he wasn't my dad, that I was adopted. It was the biggest shock I'd ever had in my life. My mother was an alcoholic and very abusive. My father – well, my stepfather – was beautiful, gorgeous, the most beautiful person, but my mother was the aggressive one. She wouldn't think anything of breaking a brush over your back. She had fourteen kids altogether.

I grew up and went to school in Liverpool [UK], then put myself through college and got qualifications in typing, shorthand, commerce. Then I trained as a psychiatric nurse and worked as that in Liverpool. After I married my ex-husband (he's English), we went to live in West Germany. He worked for NATO and I learnt German and got a job as a translator for the British Army and did that for five years. After that we came over here.

If you're in my situation, people do look down on you and I get so cranky about it. I get it sometimes when I'm shopping. I might be a dollar short or something and the shop assistant looks down her nose at you and you feel like saying: "Hey, come on! Haven't you done it tough in your life?"

I pay my big bills off monthly. If anything unexpected happens we're sunk because I've got no reserves. I did have once: I used to have some gold antiques, but last year I needed money desperately and I sold the lot. I didn't realise they were so valuable! That's all gone now. But still, we're managing. We have to.

 

SHIRLEY, 43: Before I came to this meeting with you, someone said to me: "Why don't you go in your trackies and runners?" I said, "Just because I'm poor doesn't mean I have to dress like that." I had a look in my cupboard this morning and found I've got extra tea, coffee and sugar. This means I'm not as poor as I was the other month.

I was born in Murwillumbah. Our family weren't tribal Aboriginals and I'm still trying to work out what we are. Grandfather, or one of them, was brought over to do the sugarcane. They were probably Kanaks.

I went to a Catholic school at first but when I was eight I was made a ward of the state. I couldn't understand then why they took me away. Yes, there was five of us living in a garage, but we had it all partitioned off and we all had separate rooms. Officially I was taken away because of neglect and improper guardianship. To my mind, they separated black children from their families, especially girls – who were sent further afield – so we would lose interest in our families. It worked in my case.

After they took me away, I came down to Bidura [Children's Court, Sydney] and then here to Renwick [school for underprivileged children, Mittagong]. I was there seven years, which I call my sentence.

I did fifth and sixth class at Mittagong Primary and then I went to Bowral High. I didn't really stand out at school. I'd heard that black people excelled at sport but I didn't want to be that good – I just wanted to be average. Not that that would make me any less black!

I didn't do years eleven or twelve. I left when I was about sixteen and went back to my family in Murwillumbah, but that didn't work out, so I decided to go to an aunty in Mildura. At seventeen I was working for Community Welfare in Mildura as a girl Friday. I think they needed a token blackfella and they didn't have too many to choose from there!

I was nineteen when my first child was born, in 1982. I met the father at a party in Mildura. When my son was two years old, I came here for a Renwick reunion and I haven't left! I wrote to the Department of Housing in Goulburn and said I was moving to Bowral and I'd really like a house. And they said there was a three-year waiting list. A friend put me up during that time and I worked for the police as a clerk. I'm a clerk by trade. I worked quite a lot before my next child was born. I went back into youth work, then I did cleaning at Renwick, and for about two years I worked for the CES.

After I had my first child, I said: "No more children." Well, the CES sent me on a developmental course where you plot the rest of your working life, a longevity line. Halfway through it, I said to the instructor: "This line made me understand that I want more children."

The father of my second child is an ex-ward [of the state] who is nine years my junior. He is white, a redhead, which is about as far away as you can get from having black in you! When I decided to have children through him, I told him I wanted four. I never legally married him because he was in and out of jail.

When we first got together he said he'd never be a drinker or a druggo. But then I found him stoned one day and said to him: "Time for you to go, brother." So he went out to the pub and rang the police and said: "Get over there before I do, or bring body bags." The drugs in him made him want to kill me. That threw me in such a spin that I've only been coming out of in the last few months. I was so scared for my kids and took out an AVO on him.

My cousin, who's four years my senior, sleeps by the back door now just in case. With him here, I've been very fortunate for eighteen years not having to pay a babysitter.

After I'd had three kids, I was out of work and technically I haven't worked for twelve years. I'm here with four kids, two girls and two boys, and there's my cousin. My oldest, who's twenty-four, moved out. It's a three-bedroom house, but the safety of my kids is paramount, so we've all been sleeping together in the lounge room for three years.

My depression was bad. I wasn't leaving the house. But I'm getting things back together because I don't want to be useless before my time. I'm not uneducated; I'm going into law, hopefully next year, and because of my experience with family issues, that's what I'll specialise in.

We don't go to the pictures, we don't go to the pool, we don't do holidays.

There's been times when I've kept the kids out of school because I didn't have anything to give them for lunch. I can't afford school excursions, but I'm not real fond of sending my kids on them anyway. My twelve-year-old is a big girl and I can't get a standard uniform for her from the shop and I don't have the money to have one specially made. I buy shoes once a year, but they only last three to six months. Too bad. We have to rely on hand-medowns.

I don't regret having children, but with hindsight maybe I shouldn't have had children with the man I did. I wanted thirteen children. As it turns out, my first beau – who was a ward of the state, too, and who I knew when I was twelve – has eight. Add that to my five, that's thirteen!

 

PENNY, 29: I have osteoporosis and the bone density of an eighty-three-year-old. And I was told the other day I have no kidneys left.

When I was ten years old a doctor found I had Fanconi Syndrome [a kidney condition that can affect bones] and said I had brittle bones, which is why I've had lots of breaks. I've broken this wrist four times, this twice, my ribs, my knee, my ankle, my thigh, my hip, my big toe. But that's life. Shit goes on.

I'm on peritoneal dialysis, which means I've got this tube permanently sticking out of my belly and it plugs into that machine at night and it runs for eight hours while I sleep. I work, you see, and I don't have time to do that shit at any other time of day. It's a big hassle for me to have kidney failure at the moment.

If I didn't do dialysis I would die in two days. I'd kind of welcome death, but it doesn't ever seem to want to take me, so it's not an issue for me.

I found out today I'll be able to get one of my brother's kidneys by February, which is a bit daunting. A new kidney will mean I won't be attached to that machine any more but my bones won't improve.

I have bipolar so you'll have to stop me if I go on a bit.

I had a religious upbringing in Canberra – my parents were Mormons – and I was very sheltered and very naïve. My dad left my mum when I was twelve. My mum married again when I was thirteen and they went on a honeymoon and the shit started after they came back. I remember the first time it happened. My mother's new husband ripped us all out of bed in the middle of the night. I have two stepsisters and there was my brother. My mother's husband lined us up and said that apparently we'd seen his naked bum or something, and he lectured us for hours. Then he ripped me out of the line and flogged me until I fell on the ground. Then he picked me up and shoved me back in the line and I had to wait until everyone else had their turn.

When I was fifteen I couldn't take it any more. I left school in the first week of the first term of year ten and stayed with a friend for several months and moved out when I was sixteen. I'd had sex with two people by then and when I was fifteen I fell pregnant and miscarried. I never went to the hospital and it was a pretty fuckin' horrible experience.

After that I didn't have sex with boys but I got real hardcore into the alcohol and pot. I didn't get into speed till I was seventeen or into relationships really till I was seventeen and a half. By that time I was on a disability pension for my osteo and my kidney problems.

I met Jed after my nonna set me up in a flat with a friend of mine. He was dealing speed and that's when I started getting into speed. The others would put the needles in my arm because I'd never learnt how to do that. I ended up having sex with him and after three months I fell pregnant with my son.

When I told him I was pregnant, he said I had to quit speed, alcohol and cigarettes but could smoke as much pot as I wanted. I argued with him about it and then he slapped me about the face and hit me again and again. That's when it began. He broke this wrist, my ribs, nicked my neck with a knife, gave me black eyes, pulled my hair out so I thought I was going to go bald.

I left him when my son was eighteen months old and I came up to the Highlands, stayed with a friend and then was in a refuge for about six months until my nonna organised for her church to pay for the bond on a flat. I'd go down to Canberra once a month to visit my doctor for my kidneys and on one of those visits I met up with a friend of my brother's. He promised me everything, white picket fence, everything I wanted. Being stupid and naïve and lacking in self-esteem – I'm a lot stronger and more hardcore now – I believed him. I got pregnant and when I was six months pregnant I found him shooting up in the bathroom and I told him I would leave him if he continued it. Well, he continued it and then got into the alcohol and gambling.

I have to tell you I never wanted to have two kids on my own but I promised myself I would never be with a man who was an alcoholic or a druggo ever again. He never laid a hand on me, but I left and moved in with a friend. I had my daughter when I was twenty-three.

I don't have any family up here, or friends. I had friends here once, but I got into the alcohol and the pot real bad, so when I moved into this flat two years ago I cleaned myself up. This place is subsidised by the Housing Commission but because I work – part-time as a youth worker – I'm paying $200 dollars a week rent.

I did a welfare course at TAFE part-time for two years at night and I graduated in March 2005 with six distinctions, five credits and the rest were passes. I'm so proud of myself. And I'm very fuckin' proud to be a working woman.

I'm as well off now as when I was on benefits. The only thing that's changed is that when I was on benefits I only had $50 a week for food for the three of us and now I have $100.

My daughter's six and my son's eleven. People are that snobby and stuck up themselves here that as soon as they find out I'm a single parent or that I'm the mother of my kids, my kids don't get invited to other people's houses. I write notes inviting other kids to play with my daughter but no one ever replies.

I have a ten-year plan which is now seven years gone. I want to live on a hobby farm, just half an acre, in a rundown house, with my kids and one sheep, one chook and one duck. I want my kids to have friends so that on weekends they can go over to their friends' place and can come home and tell me all the fun things they did. I want their friends to come here so that I can show them that even though I'm a single mum, I'm not that bad a person and I still have a normal life. I want my son to be happy every day at school and not be bullied. I want my daughter not to be bullied by kids who pick on other kids because they're short. I want my son to grow up into a really, really, really good man and I want him to appreciate things. I never ever want my kids to complain that they were hard done by in life. I grew up in a povo household and I never got spoiled. I never got anything and I had to work damn fuckin' hard for it. I want my kids to grow up with the same respect that I have. I want them to appreciate people from different walks of life. I don't want them to ever discriminate. I don't want them to be arseholes and I don't want them to take shit. I want them to stand up for themselves and not get walked all over like I did a lot of my life. I don't give a fuck what happens to me in my life, but I just want the best for them. And most of all I wish this stupid Southern Highlands would pull its finger out and realise that there are people here like me and that we're not bad because we don't have money and can't afford big fancy flash cars and can't afford to eat out at fancy restaurants every night. We're normal people and I'm damn sure we have bigger hearts than them, because we know what it's like to suffer.

That's what I want.

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